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  • Childhood, Memory and Lies February 15, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback


    Beachcombing usually limits autobiography in this blog to the absolute minimum: just enough to give a blurred soap opera of his life. However, today, in part to celebrate his ninth anniversary with Mrs B and in part because, as previous posts have shown, he is obsessed by the limits of memory, he has decided to go further in the hope of understanding how we sorry human ants distort our personal histories.

    First a premise: ten years ago, living far away from Little Snoring and Tuscany, Beachcombing set himself a challenge in a boring season – to write down every memory that he had prior to his fifth birthday. In most cases an experiment like this would be hopelessly flawed. Adults remembering childhood will get things mixed up with later epochs. But here Beachcombing was lucky. At about four and a half he moved from an idyllic farm in the deep countryside to a house in a nearby village. The result is that the early memories can be isolated because they have to do with the first, sunnier phase of Beachcombing’s life, and virtually all are situated around the farmhouse where he was brought up.

    So how much does a child remember between two, when memory kicks in, and five when Beachcombing exchanged rural for urban existence?

    Beachcombing has no idea what the average would be, but he has isolated about sixty different memories – say an average of one for every two weeks, extraordinarily few really. Beachcombing could probably isolate sixty memories from his first date with Mrs B if he tried hard enough, a long  decade ago. He could certainly isolate sixty from last Monday – hell, he could isolate sixty from teaching one class last Monday…

    What does a child remember? Well, above all pain: just under half have to do with discomfort (blisters, nettles etc), embarrassment (transvestite tricks in nursery), agony (mumps and earache), parental disapproval (mixing tea with coffee) etc etc. This seems to underline something that is true of later adult memories, certainly for Beachcombing: we remember a funeral better than a wedding, great sadness as opposed to great happiness.

    Indeed, only a minority of the sixty are about unadulterated happiness: a discussion about dumplings, riding on Beachcombing’s father’s back down a sunlit valley, an early visit to a cinema and a map of Northumberland that for some reason Beachcombing believed was a portrait of God (as you do).

    Then how accurate are the memories? For obvious reasons this is difficult to establish. But there is the suspicion that half are fabricated in whole or part. For example, in a previous decapitation post Beachcombing noted how he remembered his horror at his father removing chickens’ heads from their bodies as a child: whereas Beachcombing’s mother wrote by return email to note that the young Beachcombing had run around screaming with manic joy.

    Some of the other memories are simply difficult to believe or ring no bells in the memories of Beachcombing’s parents. A baby rabbit comes to live with the cats… The family adopts a girl who never though arrives… Beachcombing comes upon a tortoise where no tortoise could have lived…

    Are these dreams that have been regurgitated as memories? Interestingly two of the sixty memories are dreams, including one where Beachcombing visited a neighbouring valley where the animals spoke. If the memory of this dream had been slightly less outrageous, say an encounter with a friendly badger in the wood, then it probably would have emerged as a conventional if problematic ‘memory’.

    Another difficulty is the way that old memories disappear and new memories emerge. Beachcombing has been updating the list of new memories this morning, after ten years without reading said list and found, to his horror that he could no longer remember four of the sixty! Plato would tell Beachcombing that the act of writing these things down has destroyed the memory and Plato might, as so often, be right.

    Even worse the new memories that have emerged in the last ten years seem to relate to a collection of photographs that Beachcombing had seen in the intervening period and that he now has on his shelves. In other words there is not really a memory re-emerging, but a ‘memory’ being created after a prod. How many others of the sixty will actually be borrowed memories in this way, borrowed though in adolescence or childhood when the stealing can no longer be recalled? So Beachcombing remembers hearing, on countless occasions, how he and his brother used to fight: and – there can be no surprise – that one of his memories includes rolling about on the floor tearing at his brother in a rather formulaic, cartoon-like fashion.

    Beachcombing has shared his pessimism about memory and history before in countless posts. This exercise has reinforced his pessimism and his eyes roll back in his head when he thinks of regressive memory techniques recalling child abuse… It also terrifies him to think how many of his present fantasies – head-butting neurologists, writing books on unicorns, successfully mounting an IKEA wardrobe… – will be ‘memories’ by the time he is seventy, above all if some form of dementia or cognitive malfunctioning gets in the way. Pity Little and Tiny Miss Beachcombing… Let’s hope that they only have visiting on the weekends.

    Any other thoughts on how childhood memories work? Is there a way to distinguish true memories from false memories? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com